26 May 2006

three rockin' beats

I'm trying out an update of my Flash music player. You can now slide that thing under those jumping yellow bars to fast-forward or rewind the song, and control the volume. Don't mind those symbols on the left as they only work when there are multiple songs in the file.

have a good time : morning runner
click here or on the image below to listen

Although Morning Runner released their debut album Wilderness Is Paradise Now just a couple of months ago, Amazon UK says their early work inspired the creation of the album X&Y by Coldplay. Never forceful, Morning Runner switches comfortably between the urgent electric guitar of Be What You Want Me To Be and the piano balladry of Broken Benches and Hold Your Breath. What the band suffers from, however, is the comparison with other acts – Elbow, Keane, Coldplay, Athlete – which essentially questions their originality. I think Britons are split in the middle whether they actually like Morning Runner or not. Well, I do, and I don't mind the comparisons, which are accurate, although Morning Runner has a stronger blow and a sharper bite. Have A Good Time is easily my favorite track. I never expected it to take a drastic turn to lacerated guitars and vocals right after the frantic and funky drum into. I was hooked, goosebumps and all. These kids will have a great future if they can get past the pigeonholing and people take them for their versatility. Wilderness certainly covers greater emotional range than Hopes & Fears by Keane. Gone Up In Flames is a vigorous track that can find itselt at home in any bar today or any 80s dancefloor, with smart songwriting to boot: Going to the race track to try and get your money back/You got caught trying to break in, but you just laughed and said 'It couldn’t have been me.' The Great Escape, despite its unnecessary intro (they will probably edit it out if they release it as a single), gives you an expectation of standard-issue schmaltz until it fires up with umbrage at the chorus. In fact, the fast-slow switch seems to be the common denominator of the songs in the album, but it's not too premeditated to sound pretentious (like the word "umbrage," I know).

brilliant sky : saybia
click here or on the image below to listen

Saybia are a good reminder that diversifying your sources of rock music to countries outside of the English-speaking world can be rewarding. Coming from Denmark, the band has been around since 1993 as an independent act, going through the familiar struggle of striking a record deal. From their roots in a seaside village 130 kilometers from Copenhagen, the band toured the country until recording their own six-track EP in 2000. Their record-label aspirations were realized the following year, releasing their debut album The Second You Sleep in 2002, and Saybia have been breaking Danish charts since. The bio in the band's website has an interesting confession: "Success extracted a price and the five musicians were drained of energy. They forgot what it was like to be friends and none of them could spell the word communication, or for that matter, even remember what it meant." But instead of tearing apart, the band bought a house outside Copenhagen, renewed their bond, and wrote some songs together about the experience, resulting in lyrics that are either honest or affected. I get visions of the five of them forming a circle with their arms locked together, chanting oms, and then sitting down in the living room to write cringe-worthy words like, Do you remember the exact time we went dry on gasoline/Just the five of us against the rest of the world? (Guardian Angel) and Stayed together through stormy weather/Still divided but soul united (Soul United). Poor lyrics aside, Saybia's second album, These Are The Days, has the sound of seasoned musicians, from the timid yet self-assured vocals of Bend The Rules to the fetching bass line of Flags to the sweet-tempered acoustic guitar of The Haunted House On The Hill. The band managed to make every song in the album catchy and radio-friendly, although the promise of exuberant rock in the opener Brilliant Sky is not sustained. The rest is a mellow affair, as the band has apparently made These Are The Days a personal, emotional undertaking.

wimp soufflé : phantom buffalo
click here or on the image below to listen

Forgive me as I use the word "funnest" to describe this band. Even though the word gets 1.5 million Google results, I can never get myself to use it. But here I go: Phantom Buffalo is the funnest unknown band I've heard in a while. Apparently from Portland and formerly called The Ponys, they released Shishimumu, the album where Wimp Soufflé comes from, in 2002. They have managed to stay undetected since, in spite of sounding like many of the stateside indie bands of late. Although they're starting to break out – check out their busy gig schedule on their myspace page – it's still hard to find any information about the band, or even images of them in Flickr. I guess they're living up to the phantom image. But what the hey. Listening to Wimp Soufflé or Killing's Not OK (a single downloadable from their site – wait for the mad drumming in the middle) is great fun. The band is amateurish; it feels like they just learned to play their instruments from boarding school, decided to form a band after graduation, and somehow struck gold while goofing off. Songs like Domestic Pet Growing Seeds and Ask Your Grandmother are as clever as the titles are witty. Heck, the songs are funny, paying homage to bugs and ghosts. From Wilamena: Wilamena, you're a bug crawling on my knee/It's not a metaphor, I mean it quite literally. I'm happily sharing their record label's description of the album here, because it's quite accurate: "The sounds of the past and present meeting to create a unique and uplifting timelessness. Merging rock instrumentation, acoustic guitar, electric slide, moog, wurlitzer, and gorgeous vocals into a cluster of irresistible, catchy, and haunting songs. Flowing through droning psychedelia, velvety instrumentals, quirky indiepop, country twang, and distortion fueled rock." Sounds like a mouthful of balderdash, but have a listen and you'll agree.

17 May 2006

know where you're goan

pink india : stephen malkmus
click here or on the image below to listen

Did I tell you I was going to India? I think I did. I just got back today from a one-week work trip that included the weekend. In between meetings in Bombay and Delhi, I thought at first of going to Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, the capital of Rajasthan. However, I chickened out due to the temperature, which continues to be somewhere around 45 degrees C (about 115 degrees F). I didn't want to fry myself, so I decided to go to Goa instead. You might know the reputation of Goa as a former hippie haven in the 70s, now a commercialized strip of sand infested by dreadlocked trustafarians. Well, that only applies to the northern beaches. Going far south of the airport, you can still find tranquility in Palolem Beach, although this itself is lined with shacks now. One needs to cross the small and rocky Colomb Beach to its south to find the ultra-quiet Patnem Beach, which only has two restaurants and a couple of cottage resorts so far. I counted no more than five people swimming on the day I was there. Even beyond Patnem, separated by a hill and massive rocks, is Rajbag Beach which fronts the Intercontinental Hotel. Perhaps because the five-star property encompasses the entire beach, Rajbag boasts an atmosphere of exclusivity although it is open to everyone. The beach ends south to make way to a river, and crossing the narrow mouth of Rajbag River will take you to fishing villages that lead to Talpona and Galgibag beaches. Both are even more isolated, from tourists anyway, due to lack of infrastructure. So yes, peace and quiet can still be had in Goa. Pictures below, and while you're looking at them, listen to Pink India by Stephen Malkmus. No need to care what the song is about – it's filled with clichés and characters associated with the past – bit it's Malkmus of Pavement, and Pavement is über cool.

I stayed at an eco-lodge called Bhakti Kutir, where every material used to build the cottages was made with the hands of local villagers. Luxury is not the selling point of this property: it's back to basics, with mosquito nets, bucket showers and squat toilets (you read that right). Doors? Who needs them when curtains are enough to give you privacy? My Room 13 has a porch with a long lounge chair and a hammock.

This is Palolem Beach, which is not yet the concrete jungle the beaches to the north are, although it is certainly on its way there. How can you tell, apart from the mushrooming of lodges and beach shacks an arm's length from one another? Restaurants actually play Buddha Bar and Cafe del Mar CDs. Nonetheless, it is a good place to have a meal, given its variety of cheap restaurants ($3 will get you a generous meal with a drink) that are not available in the more southern beaches.

Indians easily outnumber foreigners in Palolem during the daytime, at least during this low-season month of May. The best time to visit Goa is during the cool months of November to March. The rest of the year is either hot – it was easily above 30 degrees last weekend – or sees consecutive days of heavy rain. But I can imagine liking to drive the stretch of Goa in the rain. Supposedly, you can drive its entire length in three hours. The two-lane highway crosses rivers and small towns, and overlooks the green tops of coconut trees and the sparkling aquamarine of the sea.

No dramatic sunsets in Palolem, which actually faces southwest. To get a view of the orange sun melting into the sea, you need to go to the northern tip of the beach and follow an uphill trail made unsavory by day-trippers who answer the call of nature in its bushes. The trail leads to angular boulders that fall steeply into the Arabian Sea. Lying on a flattish surface, I saw what looked like an eagle chasing another, swerving from underneath to lock its claws with those of its potential mate. They swirl down fast around three times before letting go. I guess there was no late-afternoon nookie for either of them. But it was about ten seconds of fascination for me, as I had never seen birds do that before.

The trail from Bhakti Kutir to Patnem. I counted four cows, one pig, and about five dogs along the way. Oh and one internet kiosk too. I also saw signs for yoga classes and Ayurvedic treatments. In fact these are also available in Bhakti Kutir, but only during peak season.

Patnem beach from the top of the hill that separates it from Rajbag.

A lonely fishing boat in Patnem.

In front of Sealand Restaurant in Patnem.

Rajbag beach in front of the Intercontinental, from the same hilltop I mentioned above.

I guess these are only for guests of the hotel.

His name is Dilkhush, a 30-year-old fisherman and father of three daughters aged 7, 5 and 2. Because his small boat needs a bit of repair, this is how he catches fish for the family's daily meals. During the monsoon and the latter months of the year, he says the river turns reddish in color and he can catch fish longer than his forearms. He lives on the banks of the Rajbag river outside the Intercontinental. He wants me to come back to Goa so he could take me on a cruise when his small wooden boat is fixed.

09 May 2006

in his bright ray : grant mclennan, 48

Okay, so I'm not the most indefatigable blogger around. I said in my last entry that I'd be writing about Grant McLennan "in a couple of hours." That was two days ago. Don't you just hate it when work and stuff get in the way of blogging? Now I'm off to India in a few hours, so forgive me as I yak my way through another post. Let's carry on. Here are three songs by Grant in honor of a great man of music from Down Under. That's the least I can say about one-half of one of my all-time favorite bands, The Go-Betweens. Those of you who have read this post will know that Grant had me hooked from the time I heard the first five notes of his song In Your Bright Ray. McLennan died in his sleep in his home in Australia on May 6th. And so The Go-Betweens – one of the most under-appreciated bands in the history of pop music – is no more.

streets of your town : the go-betweens
click here or on the image below to listen

Grant wrote Streets Of Your Town as an homage to Brisbane, his hometown and also the place where he met his maker. After Cattle and Cane, I think this is the next quintessential McLennan song. He had always been on the pop side of The Go-Betweens, which he formed in 1978 with University of Queensland buddy Robert Forster. Although for the most part they never glazed their rugged sound to befriend the charts, Grant wrote this song, from their sixth album 16 Lovers Lane, with the intention of finally making it in the UK charts. It got close, but not quite, and that is the singular curse of the band. "I think we are a pop group, but we're the most unusual pop group there's ever been," said Grant in an interview before the album was made. Recognizing the lack of immediacy in their sound, Grant added: "Although we work with melody, we sometimes work against it, and that's like one of the cardinal sins of pop music. People often mistake subtlety or reticence for naivete or wimpiness. If people do that, then it's quite pathetic. You just can't have those two qualities if you want to be in the charts, so that's our dilemma."

haunted house : grant mclennan
click here or on the image below to listen

Following record-label woes over the years, and perhaps out of burnout, the band called it quits in 1989, although after reforming in 2000 they said it was a mere hiatus. During the 11 years in between, Grant proved how prolific he was with his sedate acoustic guitar and nostalgic songwriting, releasing four solo albums, starting with the confident Watershed in 1990. To me, Grant was at his writing best when he drew sketches of his past with sharpness and the pathos of a sepia photograph, as he did with Cattle and Cane. Lost love is a theme he often wrote about, and I prefer his imagery to abstract thought and straight-from-the-shoulder storytelling. In Dream About Tomorrow, from Watershed, he sang: Nothing much happens here anymore; They're shutting down the lines; they're boarding up the stores. Their shotguns and their pick-up trucks; the railroad and the rolling stock. During his solo years, Grant also took liberty with melodic experimentation, incorporating the tumbling sound of country music in his double-disc album Horsebreaker Star in 1994 – just when grunge music was crossing over to the mainstream. While anger filled the airwaves, Grant wrote, as he said in an interview, "a bunch of songs about footsteps and change and, kind of, dirt roads, you know, underneath a sky full of stars." Was he being irrelevant, or just timeless?

do you see the lights : grant mclennan
click here or on the image below to listen

Regardless, Grant struck the right notes with my acoustic-guitar-loving ears. And that voice that half-sings and half-recites poetry – a vaguely familiar blend of passion and fury – manages to pull you in without actually calling attention to itself. It's probably best heard in his live acoustic version of the grave ballad Quiet Heart, from a session at KCRW in 1989, while promoting 16 Lovers Lane. You can easily imagine him singing it with his eyes closed, drawing power from his gut. "They're pulling the record back and putting that version in," joked Robert Forster. I think Grant reached his vocal peak in his last solo album from 1997, also called In Your Bright Ray, where Do You See The Lights comes from. By the time he and Robert reunited to make the album The Friends of Rachel Worth in 2000, the strains of a more mature age had become evident, although that was of little consequence to the fact that The Go-Betweens released some of their best songs during this decade. Now that the indie reign of the band is over – I'd hate to see Robert Forster bring a stand-in – Grant is for our memories and this humble post to keep alive.

01 May 2006

dear god please don't make them reunite

Today is May 7th. I started to write the post below six days ago, but never got to finish it until today, when Grant McLennan's passing prompted me to sit down and blog again. You'll read about and get to listen to Grant in a couple of hours. 

Anyway, I was reading the May issue of UNCUT magazine with Morrissey on the cover, and in the interview he talks about why he sees no point in reuniting The Smiths. The latest offer was for them to perform together at Coachella this summer for $5 million, which guitarist Johnny Marr says was double a prior offer for them to play in New York and London. Says Moz: "It has been 18 years since it ended. I don't know them; they don't know me. They know nothing about me; I know nothing about them. Anything that I know about them is unpleasant, so why on earth do we want to be onstage together making music?"

Interestingly, in its March issue, UNCUT talked to other former members of The Smiths (for an article on the 20th anniversary of their album The Queen is Dead) and asked them the same question of why wouldn't they reform. Johnny Marr answers: "There's been an awful lot of very dirty water gone under the bridge...I think we'd have to go to some new-age retreat in Arizona, all wear muslin and get up every morning to share the dawn. For several months. Go on some meditation walks and then share. Share! Share! Share! Or we could all go for a walk around Ancoats. And sort it out." Says drummer Mike Joyce, who successfully sued in 1996 for a higher share of royalties (leading Morrissey and Marr to each pay him somewhere around £1 million): "Because of Morrissey's hatred towards me, I suppose. Musically, it'd still be fucking brilliant...but it's too hypothetical." And from bassist Andy Rourke: "That's a tough one; it really is. I'd like to say 'never say never', but I think it's pretty unlikely, for one reason or another."

I'm probably the only fan to agree and say, Let lying dogs sleep. With their acrimony running deep, any Smiths reunion is only going to be half-arsed. Sure, there is a genuine interest among fans to see if Morrissey, Marr, Joyce and Rourke could still make great music together, and The Smiths could very well still blow us away (I doubt it, for reasons I'll say in a bit) but I think curiosity and commercial demand are never good enough reasons to mess with something that's been held sacred for two decades. As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't want a dispassionate reunion to taint my memory of a band that affected me so much in my youth.

dear god please help me : morrissey
click here or on the image below to listen

This is the most talked-about song from Morrisey's latest album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, thanks to one line that's rather uncharacteristic even for a man who once wrote And when we're in your scholarly room/Who will swallow whom? But in this song where his Mozness reveals that there are explosive kegs between his legs, Dear God must be one of the most liberating records he has written since going solo. Long a resident of Los Angeles, Morrissey has found greater freedom since moving to Rome last year. Past its narrow streets, Moz is finally able to look at lust squarely in the eye (Then he motions to me with his hand on my knee) and within the city's cramped quarters, he lets it all out without restraint (Now I'm spreading your legs with mine in between). And no matter how fleeting the encounter may be, he leaves ultimately satisfied. The heart feels free, he sings in the ending, in a rousing voice that strips away the bitterness of age. It's the voice of rebirth, something he actually sings about in At Last I Am Born (which is strategically assigned as the album's last track).

That's pretty much the theme of the album. Although Morrissey continues to use up the lexicon of misery in his song titles, Ringleaders is an exorcism of demons, a declaration of freedom from repression. Almost every song is optimistic in some parts and yielding in others, but it is all a variation of one theme: being at peace with himself by accepting what can and cannot be. From Life is a Pigsty: It's the same old S.O.S./But with brand new broken fortunes/I'm the same underneath. From I Will See You In Far Off Places: It's so easy for us to sit together/But it's so hard for our hearts to combine/And why? And in The Youngest Was The Most Loved, he warbles with a chorus of children's voices: There is no such thing in life as normal. Something tells me that Morrissey's next album will have far less torment. I'm just not sure whether that's good or bad. Although – or probably because – it's his most self-effacing album, Ringleaders doesn't have the lyrical riddles of his previous works, and fails to reach even half the stature of the complex Vauxhall and I.

caught up : johnny marr + the healers
click here or on the image below to listen

Now back to my point about the reunion. There's a dollar price for everything, so no one can say it's not going to happen, but my hope is for it not to happen, simply because they have grown so far apart Morrissey has outgrown his bandmates so much it's hard to imagine them even looking at one another on stage. Need proof? Listen to Caught Up, the best track from Marr's 2003 album Boomslang and be amazed with the shallowness of it. Catchy? Check. Good guitar? Check. Grown-up? Like can you even understand what he's saying? Come on, can anyone actually picture The Smiths playing their songs with the same intensity as they did 20 years ago? The Smiths is about Marr's guitar complementing Morrissey's words, and vice versa. Their connection was a prerequisite to their sound. They don't have that connection now, and I doubt if their technical expertise – if it's still up to par at all – can compensate for it. Put them together and they'll amount to a circus act people will see only out of curiosity. Can they cross the wire without falling? Yeah, no thanks, whatever.